Edgy England made to wait as USA’s Pulisic is thwarted by woodwork in draw
It was a night when England succeeded in doing one thing – dousing the expectations that had built so suddenly after the thrashing of Iran in their opening World Cup tie. The stalemate means they will almost certainly qualify for the last 16 – only a heavy defeat against Wales next Tuesday would derail them – but there was precious little else to quicken the pulse.
England were flat, moving the ball backwards and sideways too often. They could not get around the blue shirts of the United States, failing to stretch them and it very quickly turned into a slog. Harry Kane had one early sighting and a huge chance late on – a free header from Luke Shaw’s curling free-kick that he thudded wide. But that was the sum total of England’s threat on a night when the US were the better team, impressing with their shape and discipline, and having the opportunities to have nicked it.
The England inquest will rage – they normally do. There were shades of the 0-0 with Scotland in the second tie at Euro 2020 and, in the final analysis, Southgate and England could be relieved that they did not lose. The Iran result had offered a basis to fire momentum. Here, there was only a reality check. The hope had to be that it would not be a bad thing.
History had been a part of the equation. How many times had England previously beaten the USA at major tournaments, Southgate asked on Thursday. The answer was never. There had been two World Cup ties – the notorious defeat in 1950 and the underwhelming draw in 2010.
Southgate was always likely to stick with the starting line-up and system from the Iran game as he sought to end the hoodoo – back four, progressive midfield, threats from all over – but it was essential that the mentality was right. There had been a click against Iran, after all of the frustrations in the Nations League. It did not mean that England could win on autopilot.
England wanted to open up the USA with quick, short passes and slick movements and they worked a glorious opening at the outset, which might have brought a goal for Kane. Kieran Trippier and Jude Bellingham combined to free Bukayo Saka and Kane’s eyes lit up when the ball was pulled back. His shot was blocked by Walker Zimmerman.
But that was broadly that for the opening quarter of the game, England’s patterns quickly coming to look predictable. They played mainly in front of the USA. There was the moment when Harry Maguire retrieved a corner on the far side and got the better of Tim Weah before dropping a shoulder on Tyler Adams to pull back. It came to nothing.
England looked to play off Kane and get it in to Saka, who flickered early on. But the USA held a high back line and squeezed in midfield, their pressure on the man in possession a major irritant to England. Southgate’s team groped for inspiration.
What a scene it was in the desert north of Doha, some way north in the city of Al Khor, the stadium resembling a giant tent from the outside and a vast amphitheatre inside – too vast, plainly, to sell all of the tickets.. There were empty seats dotted all over.
With the retractable roof open, a cool breeze circulated. Southgate had noted beforehand how some of his best football experiences had come on nights like these, the colours vivid, the pitch pristine.
Southgate had predicted that the USA would bring a ferocious intensity but it was a measured approach from them, well structured and, with England coming to lack ideas, Gregg Berhalter’s team made their move. It was the USA who called the tune in the second half of the first period and they had the chances to break the deadlock. Clear chances, too, causing palpitations for the England support.
The big one followed a low cross from the right and there was Weston McKennie, sniffing out space. His first-time shot was high and wasteful. Christian Pulisic bought a yard from Trippier and unloaded a shot from the left that rattled the crossbar and how the Chelsea winger would like his time again when he rose unmarked to meet a cross from the right. The connection was scruffy, the ball coming off his shoulder and flying off target.
Shaw teed up Saka, who lifted high, towards the end of the half and Mason Mount extended Matt Turner but England had to do more.
The USA grew in assurance as the game developed and they came to realise that England did not appear to have very much with which to hurt them. Their supporters turned up the volume and Pulisic urged them to rouse themselves even further when he took a succession of second-half corners. He believed that the breakthrough was coming.
England lived a little dangerously on Pulisic’s corners, surviving with last-ditch headers. Jordan Pickford flapped at another. The US counter-press became a defining motif of the game and it was startling to think, we reached the halfway point of the second half, that England had barely got out of their half since the restart.
With Tyler Adams a blaze of industry in midfield, all of the energy came from the US. It had turned into a highly impressive performance from them, Berhalter getting his tactics spot on.
Southgate shuffled his pack, making changes, looking for a better balance. It said everything that he withdrew two of his stars from the Iran game – Bellingham and Saka. It was not their night. Jack Grealish showed a bit of personality on the ball but could England find some incision? Marcus Rashford, another substitute, curled straight at Turner and, at the very end, there was Kane. He was off target.